Penn Live Arts Blog

The Negro Ensemble Company connects with students

Posted November 7, 2023

During the week of October 16, the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), our 23/24 season artist-in-residence, prepared to perform No Policy, No Justice, an evening of world premiere one-act plays by Mona Washington (Elevator Not Necessary) and Cynthia Grace Robinson (Breathe) that addressed how mourners process deaths of loved ones lost to gun violence. Penn theatre arts, creative writing and English classes hosted NEC artists throughout the week leading up to the performances, beginning with director Ralph McCain in August Wilson and Beyond, the Academically Based Community Service course, co-taught this semester by Margit Edwards and Suzana Berger. McCain found clear connections between Wilson’s legacy of writing about Black communities and the emotional exploration of the aftermath of violence in the plays, and he exchanged stories with students about the frightening grip gun violence has on everyday American life.

Breathe actor Kenya Wilson, who plays Kim, a mother in mourning for her son, visited Margit Edwards’ Movement for the Actor course. Breathe explores the role of movement, particularly yoga practice, in helping two women heal from the grief they feel after the violent loss of loved ones. Kenya spoke with students about the importance of movement and the body in developing her character.

Breathe playwright Cynthia Grace Robinson visited with two of Senior Lecturer Brooke O’Harra’s courses, Introduction to Acting and Experimental Playwriting. In speaking to students who had attended the performances over the weekend, Robinson explained about her development as a playwright, which began in earnest while she was raising her two young daughters while also being an English educator. After taking a course with the renowned playwright Sophia Romma, one of her plays was selected for production at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and it launched her career. She emphasized her background as a first-generation college student and child of working-class parents. “This is not just a path that privileged people can take,” she told students. She also highlighted the possibility of making a life in the arts while pursuing other work, passions and identities. “I’m not just a playwright,” she said, “I’m also a parent, a partner – the most important things in my life are not from my doing and pursuing.” Good teaching and mentorship, she added, could make the difference between a student finding their pathway in a creative field and being discouraged. To O’Harra’s example of a former student football player who had gone on to become an opera singer, Robinson said, “How does that happen? The portal remains open.”

Washington and Robinson, along with McCain, gathered after the Saturday night performance for a vibrant post-show discussion that engaged questions about whose perspectives were missing from stories about gun violence, how to choose joy despite the odds of disaster, and how characters experiencing grief might move “chaotically” from mourning to laughter and back again.

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